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How can we build healthier communities in urban and suburban settings and what trends can we expect to see from designers in the coming months and years? Learn this and more in our interview with Rich Centolella, a landscape architect and Principal at EDSA.

Spending time outdoors is recommended more now than ever before; however, urban and suburban settings in the US have been designed more for car traffic than pedestrians. Since the pandemic, though, more green spaces and bike lanes are on the menu.

Landscape architects, who have the responsibility of ensuring the health and well-being of people and places, will be actively participating in such changes, and it seems that city officials should now be more on board with these types of projects.

We discuss landscape architecture in light of current events with Rich Centolella, landscape architect and Principal at EDSA.

Archiexpo e-magazine: how would you define a healthy community and what are some ways architects and designers can create such communities?

Rich Centolella: The health and wellness movement quickly amplified during the pandemic, bringing greater attention to the restorative powers of spending time outdoors, breathing in fresh air and being surrounded by nature. There is an ongoing need for immersion in the natural environment, giving rise to more biking and hiking trails, gardens and park spaces.

One example is the proliferation of expanded outdoor dining in response to Covid restrictions and protocols. The “Design for Distancing: Reopening Baltimore Together” initiative strives to reimagine how public spaces might be reconfigured in the age of Covid-19 so that shoppers can more safely patronize small businesses. As one of several firms selected to take initial ideas through to implementation, our studies explored new ways to quickly and affordably design the physical spaces required to comply with new regulations while creating comfort, uniqueness and curb appeal.

Connectivity and accessibility are now foremost in communities where conveniences are redistributed throughout to provide gathering points and outdoor amenities within a 3–5 minute walk from every home. We are creating places where pedestrians, trails and networks of outdoor spaces are prioritized. Working with the City of Owensboro, which include a series of community consensus-building workshops, EDSA led a multidisciplinary team in creating a master plan for the riverfront environment and implementing several strategic projects including the Riverpark Center, Mitch McConnell Plaza, POW/MIA Memorial, Smothers Park, and Riverfront Crossing.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you explain the concept of wider streets and sidewalks and how it’s different from what we’ve seen in the past?

Rich Centolella: The concept of complete streets emerged in response to the all too common practice of expanding two-lane, local streets into four-lane arterials once traffic loads hit a certain point—roughly 6,000 cars a day. Original thinking held that wider roads meant better traffic flows, but at a cost to other users of the corridor. More recently, the rationale is to shrink and even remove vehicular lanes to recapture space for bike lanes, widened sidewalks, on-street parking, crossing islands and traffic calming devices. In support, research shows that redesigning streets in this manner does not impact travel times – rather, pedestrian traffic tends to soar as moving traffic is buffered and vehicular speed is decreased. Meanwhile, traffic flow typically stays even in such corridors as drivers divert to other parts of the overall roadway network.

The difference-maker is in changing the culture of how we use streets. By incorporating a holistic approach to roadway design, we can enrich social engagement, improve public health, strengthen local economies and better support both recreational and ecological needs. Reintroducing pedestrian traffic, alternative modes of transportation and landscape elements such as tree canopies that provide carbon offset promote smart and viable options in creating better, more livable communities.

In Savannah, Georgia, EDSA’s design reclaims some of its most notable streets and urban corridors for people. Widened sidewalks, new walkways, information kiosks, bike racks and lanes, medians, bioswales and plantings improve the pedestrian experience within the existing urban fabric. Currently underway, the plan provides a safe public realm that is centered upon visual identity, green infrastructure, ADA and bicycle safety, smart transportation, historic preservation and functionality.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What’s the difference between the US and Europe?

Rich Centolella: In the US, everything already seems rather wide; however, for other countries, notably in Europe, cities have had tight streets for many decades if not centuries. How might these cities achieve the concept of wider? In my opinion, wider isn’t always better. Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are basically the same. They gather in public if you give them a good place to socialize. Timeless design principles and ideas reassert themselves with clarity when one gains a greater sense for the culture and captures the hearts and imaginations of the people who live in, work in and visit a place. Consider the historic cities of Italy. Planners allotted adequate space for houses, shops, squares and temples. In trying to satisfy the needs of every individual they estimated for water consumption, street sizes and number, sidewalks and sewers systems. Roman cities were designed and built to serve the needs of all the people who lived within them – and as such have stood the test of time. Some of my favorite spaces are in the narrow street corridors of Florence, Italy and they function today as well as when they were built hundreds of years ago.

Let us learn by being students of the past with the tools and knowledge of today’s technology. There is success in the commonalities of consistent paving, public piazzas of varying sizes, sloping ground planes for drainage and hierarchy in important buildings or monuments. Streets patterns are the result of events or, of orientation coupled with the configurations of the terrain. Highly traveled principal roads are encased by a profusion of narrow side streets which are often reserved for pedestrians. Outdoor dining is typical on these side streets with a mix of shops and restaurants.

Making small changes to the public realm with quality materials, ample walkway widths, welcoming signage and lighting will draw more people outdoors and improve the quality of life for residents. Narrowing travel and parking lanes to 11 and 7 feet respectively and restoring that real estate back to the sidewalk system for, say, outdoor cafes, or a dedicated bikeway, is relatively simple and economical. We continue to work with cities to examine where and how they can put their streets on ‘road diets’ and return space for the public to enjoy.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What are some ways you’re creating covered outdoor areas to feel like indoor spaces and are you also creating covered outdoor spaces that feel very open despite being covered?

Rich Centolella: This newfound want and the CDC-regimented need for a consistent outdoor connection has led landscape architects down a consistent path for development that is guided by technology and adaptability. Not only are we continuing to create outdoor spaces that are amenitized to feel as if they are indoors, but we are discovering new opportunities to merge the two together for transitional use.

Take into consideration anything from a large resort property to a small restaurant. Each has a similar need for open and closed-off outdoor spaces that cater to specific uses and events, but in most cases, neither has the capacity to implement both without compromising existing programming. This is when flexibility and technology come into play. Once an outdoor space is defined, we take a multi-disciplinary approach, advising our clients on a variety of design elements such as shade coverings, flexible site furnishing, lighting, natural room dividers and heating/cooling elements. This precise selection of materials allows the outdoor space to be constantly reconfigured, rearranged and season-proofed, while letting the space feel as intimate – or as open, as needed.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you tell us more about preserving land and how it fits into landscape architecture?

Rich Centolella: For centuries, humans have altered the natural environment to accommodate growing populations. An attitude of conquering natural systems, as opposed to one of protection and incorporation, has led to a host of economic and environmental complications, such as inefficient use of energy, pollution, destruction of habitats and water shortages. Historic responses have consisted mainly of policies aimed to restrict and prohibit. While such policies proved helpful in altering outcomes, new and more enlightened land-use approaches have emerged.

Dynamic conservation has its roots in an emerging, more global realization for stewardship of the earth and sustainable living environments. This is supported by the widespread understanding that nothing exists in isolation—everything, including mankind, is connected to everything else. It’s our job to design forms that complement natural systems and positively contribute to the social, economic and environmental fabric of communities. With a strategy that focuses on aesthetics and usability, our designs must encourage people to return outdoors and reconnect with the natural world. That means making the right land-use decisions with regard to location and density.

Embedded in this idea is the need for comprehensive and holistic land-use planning. Public agencies and private enterprises must take a cooperative and collaborative approach to outline long-range, evolving land use plans in which regional growth and protection of the environment is balanced. For optimal design efficiency, built and natural systems must be synergistic, and this happens when design responds to a logical carrying capacity of the land, rather than simply “as of right” entitlements. The resulting metrics help us to understand performance so we can adjust the design in a way that benefits future generations.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: We read that architects are developing land more carefully rather than jamming too many homes and apartments; can you explain more about this?

Rich Centolella: It’s not necessarily about creating more, but instead tweaking what exists, based on what’s important to the location and community. When you look at any situation and really think about what is working and what isn’t, the need for change becomes very clear.

A few years ago, families wanted to live privately, down a winding road or in the back of development by a lake with a long view. Privacy was important and homebuyers paid a premium for it. Today, a larger portion of the buyer profile prefers to be an active part of the community. It’s not about how big your yard is or how many square feet your home is but more about a sense of community. It’s about the diversity of experience and creating as many choices as possible.

Our design solutions weave open spaces throughout residential offerings where a network of green areas serves as outdoor platforms that everybody uses to connect and recreate. EDSA is also mixing small lots with larger ones and introducing out-of-sight alleys for parking instead of utilizing the street for a greater aesthetic appeal.

It’s all about walkability. Shorter blocks with tighter networks of streets are now preferred. People don’t walk 1,200 feet all at once, so we try to keep blocks 400-600 feet long to make it more pedestrian-friendly. At Newland Communities’ 795-acre FishHawk Ranch in Tampa, Florida, EDSA designed a system of green paths that connect the neighborhood to the educational facilities, enabling residents to walk to school within five minutes.

Greater connectivity and more open space are also important in urban areas. Cities are looking at public realm solutions that address maintenance, durability and the incorporation of higher-quality materials.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What are the trends we can expect to see from designers in the near future?

Rich Centolella: At EDSA, we are encouraged by recent research and global predictions that credit future investments in health, green infrastructure and education as a means to help countries achieve productive, inclusive and sustainable growth.

Adaptive Spaces. With designers increasingly being called upon to offer solutions of comfort in a ‘scalable agility’ of public spaces, accessibility, materiality and elements are being reimagined. Pivoting walls, movable furniture and street activation are all ways to increase viewsheds, work within looser boundaries and establish a vernacular that strengthens community bonds.

Healthy Environments & People. Up to 80% of health outcomes are dependent upon our ecosystem, bringing a heightened awareness to the co-dependency between nature and humanity. With wellness real estate emerging as a highly promising niche, investment in resilient design can serve as an insurance policy for human well-being. Relying on environmental conditions such as airflow, natural light and scenic quality, we expect new metrics to capture Return on Wellness (ROW) and a deeper exploration of the relationships between physical communities, individual health and the overall wellness of our planet.

Food Sourcing. The pandemic nudged us to consider how we can build greater resilience into our food system by reducing the miles involved in ‘farm to table’. This presents an opportunity to accelerate the growth of regenerative agriculture, as we continue to understand the links between food production, global population and climate change. Locally cultivated and regionally distributed food production will require adjustments to land allocation for multiple-use farming alternatives.

Taking to the Open Road. Uncertainty has been confining, leaving our itch for adventure on the backburner. However, our need for exploration has been welcomingly replaced by regionalized road trips that will result in an uptick in revenue for drive-to destinations that feature large, open spaces and exclusive areas for small groups to dine, experience the outdoors and enjoy the amenities. Privacy is fast becoming the new luxury, and hospitality providers will need to adjust their economies of scale to better serve smaller audiences.

In the broader sense, the most significant near-to-future trend will be the ability for everyone to embrace the unknown and be more agile and accommodating. As designers, we have the intelligence, skills and ability to thrive as we seek to provide better places and more enjoyable spaces for everyone.